Tag Archives: Julia Sporsen

The dreamworld of Mr Jones / Julietta / English National Opera / Opening night – 17 September 2012

20 Sep

I have been hosting the blog posts of Claire Pendleton from the ENO chorus  for the last month and I had a good idea about the set up and direction of Julietta and even had a sneak peek view of the set during rehearsals. But the great unknown was always the work itself. Martinů takes the dreamworld of the original play into an extreme, his composing becoming fragmented and episodic, very few of the narrative threads are followed through and much of the singing is a recitativo accompanied by pillowy (at time wondrous) music. It makes for an unsatisfactory night at the theatre if the audience is not prepared to take it at face value and allow itself to be seduced by the spare but oddly voluptuous soundworld of Julietta.

The heroine is a dream and it seems so is the possibility of a coherent narrative. This production was immaculate and the orchestral playing was tremendous. Particularly how it was customised to the sometimes too hot acoustic of the coliseum was an impressive feat. The music sounded distant and echoing at times and others the fortissimi braced the material into shape. Edward Gardner as an astute and highly theatrical conductor managed to bring out a wealth of beauty and lyricism. The woodwind passages in Act Two were truly delicious and worthy of the concert hall let alone the opera house. The singing was mostly exceptional, Peter Hoare was tremendous as the dream swept Michel and managed to take us all on a journey as he gradually starting losing himself and his own memories and retreating from reality to the uncertain world of dreams. His singing was always assured and full of spark. His Julietta was as ethereal and edgy one would wish Julia Sporsén (who was unfortunately let down by the orchestral balance on appearance in Act One) sang with an airy confidence and strong stage presence. We could surely see why she made such and impression on Michel. She made a great case for ENO’s frequent casting of singers from its own young artist programme for major parts. If she was that wonderful on opening night imagine how much she will grow through the run.

The chorus who mainly creates a reflective echoing sound through the first two acts was a great asset and established the mood set by the orchestra.  And also supported Michel in his attempt to find his way through the provincial town he found himself stuck in.  Also Claire did do a magisterial dash across the stage in Act Two, as mentioned in a previous blog!  From the smaller parts Susan Bickley was a tremendous presence and the source of much hilarity either as the fortune-teller that talks about the past or as the old woman coming out to admonish Michel. Henry Waddington made an assured man at the window plus a dry witted waiter in the Second Act. One singer that made a distinctly bad impression on me was Emile Renard who maybe too carried away by the little arab character just oozed arrogance throughout the evening. Especially when she was out-sang as one of the three men by Clare Presland and  Samantha Price. She has a lovely lyric voice but her stage presence could use a little bit of toning down.

The production by Richard Jones was well honed (after all this is the third incarnation of this production since 2002) the three differently orientated accordions created a suitably surreal and evocative setting. One slight annoyance was the flimsy construction of the instrument in Act One with the doors almost prematurely flung open on impact. I can imagine Julietta with its sparse orchestration can be a victim to a director’s whim to add extra clutter to make up for it. Jones went against the grain and allowed the music and signing ample space to breathe. His attention to physical acting paid dividends, both Hoare and Sporsén gave us a fully lived performance of great distinction.
The addition of the custom curtain design made up of white drawn sleepers in pyjamas spelling out Julietta, with Michel being the last one on the lower right was a nice touch and when it re-appeared in the end it brought the story to a circular conclusion. Another beautiful touch was the wandering french horn player in the wood of Act Two adding another surreal touch in addition to the wine waiter and a piano being “played” by Julietta on a moving platform towards the back of the stage.

Jones’ touch was light and this production deserves to be seen for its sheer ebullience and wit. Unfortunately what let it down was Martinů and his fragmented, sometimes prescriptive music that especially in Act Three felt overtly laboured. Overall I am delighted that ENO exposed us to such a repertoire rarity especially when staged with such conviction and good taste but two days later not much of the music has stayed with me.  It surely was surreal and witty and a wonderful night out, but as an opera it seemed to lack that extra hook that makes it unforgettable. I may have to return to see if I will allow myself to be won over by the music 😉

Some tweets from the evening

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Paranoia at the terraces / Detlev Glanert’s Caligula / English National Opera – 07 June 2012

12 Jun

Another opera at ENO, another contemporary opera gamble to be precise. It seems that they have cornered the niche for new opera in London and they pull it off with much more brio and commitment than what Royal Opera can ever muster as a token gesture twice a year. Glanert’s work is based on a celebrated 1944 (started in 1938) play by Albert Camus. It seems the main impetus behind the expressionist colour of the music idiom and much of the staging was Camus’ language.

As the composer stated in the trailer  ‘it all starts with a scream’. Indeed Caligula’s hand parted the curtain and stood in front of it and raised it as if at a camp pantomime but with an echoing pre-recorded scream. The live music was indispersed with recorded fragments of organ, breathing and other antiphonal offerings. It seems the staging of the piece on a football terrace was what annoyed a lot of reviewers but I thought it possibly the most successful part of the night. What other public arena could be in direct parallel with the Roman world’s love of spectacle and en masse entertainment than the world of football today? Also the direction was making a nod to Camus’ timing for writing the original play, as a reflection on Hitler and Stalin. The concrete, yellow chaired terrace immediately was a dead ringer for the 1936 Olympics, under the auspices of the Nazi regime. In contemporary life a football stadium is an interesting unifying space for the different classes, a place for convivial banter and darker exchanges of fury and violence. Benedict Andrews was on to something with placing the action in front or on the terrace for the whole production. It also had a unique resonance on the back of the four days of state sponsored jubilation for the Queen the past weekend before I saw Caligula. The British public had pretty much the place of the chorus who is the rent a crowd for Caligula for most of the opera. Waving flags despite the ridiculous nature of the leader. Even the translation by Amanda Holden was making allusions to the current political climate with a reference to being in this together by Caligula in Act One…the most famous and empty statement by the current UK coalition government.

Of course the obligatory nudity rule was observed, but this being Caligula one has to expect it even more. For most of the opera when the dead lover and sister of the hero, Drusilla is mentioned a naked Zoe Hunn walks about in a transparent veil and in the second half almost Bond Film like coated in a thick layer of sparkle. The ghostly presence worked and actually saved us from any awkward video projections of said ghost for which I was grateful. Also a naked male with a slit throat (sacrificial victim to Venus?) was in Venus’ sparkly enclosure.

It has to be said that one aspect of the production that was puzzling was the far too camp direction of the protagonist and Helicon. Sometimes making some very intimidating lines lose their potency, but if the goal was to project Caligula’s paranoia then we can make a leap of faith to that direction, but prima facie it was an odd choice of interpretation. Peter Coleman-Wright does not possess a unique or very beautiful voice but his interpretation was strong and surely ruled the circus on stage. The banquet in Act Two was very well judged and he was indeed as evil as he had to be in order to be both the musical and dramatic focus via the rape of Livia over the dinner table and the poisoning of Mereia. In Act Three he shows up as Venus who is about to wed the moon, complete in sparkly silver dress and blonde wig emerging from an enclosure on the upper terrace not unlike a set for a drag queen. After he fills the stadium with body bags of all his Roman victims he is murdered by a football hooligan mob and he emerges bloodied to declare he is still alive. Unfortunately the second half and the conclusion were well staged but the actual work goes a bit flat on ideas and menace. So the final proclamation by Caligula comes as a relief on what seemed a 20 minute too long second part.

The stand out protagonist of the piece was the chorus who reflects and eggs on Caligula throughout, dressed rather smartly in vintage fur coats and at times sports jerseys. They make up some of the most powerful  stage pictures. For instance in the opening of Act Three they bring floral tributes to Caligula (dressed as Venus). As this is post the mass slaughter of numerous Romans their bunches of flowers that cover the seats of the lower terrace reminds us of the scenes in football stadiums after disasters when they are covered in offerings in the memory of the victims of violence. That was both poignant and also tied again the iconography of the football stadium with the undercurrent of public ritualistic expression of grief.

Yvonne Howard was a graceful Caesonia with a tough veneer of power for the crowds but with a much more vulnerable side to her interpretation when confronted with Caligula in private. She acted with elegance and sang with warmth and conviction. As did Julia Sporsen who showed silent power, sinuous singing and became the opposite of Howard for most of the opera. The overall star of the night was Ryan Wigglesworth who conducted with simple immediacy and with an unfailing focus on the singers. The orchestra sounded totally idiomatic under him and his sense of propulsion and rhythm underpinned the whole evening.

Overall I would say that Glanert’s musical idiom is not too extreme and actually very singer friendly but I would have liked a bit more danger in Act Four which was the least edgy sounding. Having the protagonist meet a grizzly end in the hands of the mob has to be a dramatic gift for any stage director and composer and it seems this time round it was far too normalised to make for great impact. But respect to ENO and the cast for giving a very good performance of a demanding piece of work and creating some interesting parallels with concurrent events that affect our everyday lives. Mary Beard must be proud that they made the Romans seem relevant in all their excesses and struggles.

The performance on Saturday 9 June was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 7 July 2012

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